Denton Welch: The Making of a Writer
“Nothing but this small picture will be left of the day; many years after, people may be able to read, then say, ‘He was cold, he watched the sunset, he ate a chocolate,’ but nothing more will be left to them.” The English writer Denton Welch wrote this in the last year of his life, when he was thirty-three, in 1948. His sense of time always passing, of the fragility of things, was the result of an unsettled childhood and the death of his mother when he was eleven. But in the last years of his life, when he was dying from the aftereffects of a traffic accident, it was accentuated. Death had to be staved off, he grew more and more ill. Time had to be preserved in diaries (they were begun six years before his death), his three autobiographical books had to be written; “I must not be so ill that I cannot be famous,” he had written in 1942. In the end he was wrong to say that nothing more would be left for us but the cold and the sunset and the chocolate; he left behind the outline of his life and sensibility, in a few small works that are like the miniature antiques he loved so much—delicate, accurate.
His life, Welch wrote, fell into two parts, Old Life and New Life. He was a healthy art student when he was run over by a car, and he survived badly crippled for thirteen more years. From the moment he came to on a grass verge to hear a voice speaking to him through a cloud of pain everything was totally changed; he compares it ironically to a new birth. But it was not only a birth into invalidism; the accident may be the reason why we know of him now. It gave him the impetus to achieve (and writing was physically easier than painting) and gave him the subject for his best book.
A Voice Through a Cloud, written last, tells the story of his accident plainly, from the day he set out hopefully to cycle along a country road until many months later when he began to take up an inexorably crippled life. Before that he had written Maiden Voyage, about a year spent in China after leaving school, and In Youth Is Pleasure, going back to a summer vacation at fifteen. This is the least successful of the three; whimsicality is not kept in check by the ballast of fact that holds the other two books. Apart from the journals, letters (from which De-la-Noy quotes), and a handful of rather amateurish short stories, this is the complete achievement of Welch’s short life. In the Forties and Fifties he had something of a cult, perhaps because of the veiled homosexuality in his work, perhaps because of the tragedy of his death; now in his way he has stood the test of time and deserves this revival of his achievement.
Since Welch’s writing is almost entirely autobiographical, Michael De-la-Noy’s biography mainly tells his life story in his own words. Welch was the child of an American mother and an English father who traded in Shanghai, and his childhood was spent between England and China. When his mother died very early he was virtually orphaned; his father was withdrawn and seems to have played little part in his life. He did not allow any mention of his dead wife. Except in In Youth Is Pleasure, Welch himself rarely makes a mention of her. Not long before his death, writing in his journal of a temporary parting from the man he was in love with, he wrote: “I could not help thinking, ‘What if I should never see him again!’ My mother had been swept away like that, not in a train, but in a car. I just saw the waving hand, the little corner of face; then they were gone and I never saw them again.” And in A Voice Through a Cloud he describes without sentiment how after her death, when he was twelve, he used to write letters to her and post them in rabbit holes, empty birds’ nests, dried-up wells. He was the youngest child and her pet; he painted her eyebrows for her, she bought him tiny antique trinkets.
Like many another literary Englishman, he hated his boarding school and at sixteen ran away from the cold baths and bad food and all the rest that appalled his fastidious nature. He went out to spend a year in China, came back and enrolled in an art school; then came the accident. After a long period in hospitals and a frantic, unrequited love for his doctor, he settled in a cottage in the country with a housekeeper. He acquired an assortment of friends and he could still get about a certain amount on foot and by cycle, seeing the countryside and exploring the old buildings he loved. He painted a little, began to write seriously, and in 1942 had Maiden Voyage accepted by a publisher. Around this time he had a stroke of luck such as should happen to every young writer: the poet Edith Sitwell sent him a generously congratulatory letter about an article of his, and became a sort of literary sponsor to him. He had, shy though he was, put in some work on this, sending letters to the great and famous on various pretexts. In Sitwell’s case he struck gold.
Maiden Voyage was a success. Curiously, considering it came out at the height of World War II, his publisher had told him he felt it was “contemporary” and “of his generation.” Perhaps its coolness struck a note that was welcome because of its very distance from wartime. In the few years that were now left to Welch he wrote his other two autobiographical books (A Voice Through a Cloud was written through terminal pain and illness and stops short of its closing pages), and he met a man that he fell in love with and lived with.
This was important. In his journals and books one sees the dilemma of the person who is baffled by the problem of human contact; he shrinks equally from people and from loneliness; neither is right. In A Voice Through a Cloud he describes a walk along the shore with the doctor he was infatuated with:
To feel near me the heart and flesh and bones of someone else made a secrecy spring up, a self-protection and sense of complete isolation. He would feel now every uncertainty of my body, every jerk or slowness, and I would be aware of his much greater strength as he helped me forward; but the very closeness of our bodies cut our minds apart, left them as separate as the sides of a deep ravine.
In the journal he thinks out the problem; it is best for him to be alone, he thinks—“in loneness everything seems to grow into its proper place and there is hardly any waste of spirit”; the trivia of social life disgust him—“Oh the dirtiness of herding together.” Yet he wants people nearby, just the conciousness of their existence. Somehow, after much agonizing over the unequalness of his relationship with his friend Eric Oliver, he found the solution simple; they found they could just share a house together. Oliver nursed Welch to his death, though he was not in love with him. They were very different, and Oliver clearly was someone who could just in a vegetative way stay near his friend without breaking the bubble of solitude needed for writing:
When Eric was away and I lay in bed so still with books, my thoughts, the pretty things I have collected, I thought that all I really wanted was to be alone, to think and to dream in a daze about work I shall do. But now that he is asleep on the bed, I find I can still think and dream, and I even feel better physically because someone is there….
It was not an ordinary homosexual arrangement. It has to be realized that as a result of the accident Welch not only had to wear a urine bag but was virtually impotent. The diffuse homoerotic tone of his writing is one of approaching and looking and retreating, and this might have been so even if he had not been crippled. At one point he analyzes his pattern of sex and friendship in the journals; he is annoyed because a beautiful soldier turns out to have an educated voice—“I cannot admire you as I would if you were a clod. This is a terribly muddled state to be in. It shows that I can never be true friends with anyone except distant women—far away. For I wish for communion with the inarticulate and can only fray and fritter with the quick.” He did have a number of doting middle-aged women friends, and he did get much of his sense of human companionship on paper, writing long, gossipy letters.
E.M. Forster, after reading a manuscript copy of one of the journals, commented with distaste on Welch’s “funking of intimacy, the sham-innocence and cock-teasiness.” Forster, who worked to integrate his homosexuality, his love, and his friendship, perhaps had a right to criticize. Certainly if there is anything more monotonous in the journals than the Welchian succession of rather endearing picnic meals (“ducks’ eggs, nut meat, tomatoes, crispbread, cherry jam, honey and coffee”) it is the succession of working-class youths, usually sunbathing half-naked and with tiny beads of sweat glistening somewhere, found and chatted to in the Kent countryside. No wonder one of his correspondents said there was a rumor that a randy artist was roaming the area looking for beautiful youths. Yet as the quotation about the soldier above shows, Welch understood the glum implications of the identical cock-teasing encounters. And once he had settled with Eric Oliver he never ceased to marvel at his luck and to regret that they had not met earlier (they were just the same age). In 1944 there is a brief entry in the journal that cuts through all the camp:
When you long with all your heart for someone to love you, a madness grows there that shakes all sense from the trees and the water and the earth. And nothing lives for you, except the long deep bitter want. And this is what everyone feels from birth to death.
It is hard, of course, to grasp now that the books, with their so very veiled erotic hints, were considered hot properties at the time of their publication. Publishers hemmed and hawed about the implications of specific phrases and incidents, and a friend reported to Welch that he had found a copy of Maiden Voyage at a bookseller’s on a pile marked “Of Interest to Students of Abnormal Psychology.” Yearning, eccentric letters from readers began to arrive for Welch. Edith Sitwell had written to him that the book had “a touching and beautiful quality of youth and innocence about it…a longing for experience, and a moving longing for warmth, as well as a sad loneliness,” and Michael De-la-Noy wonders whether she was herself very naive in calling it innocent. Whether or not she was naive, her description actually is right; there is innocence in the book in a healthy proportion, and the other qualities she describes. What Forster called sham innocence is sometimes present in the journals and even more in the letters (from which De-la-Noy quotes), but it is swept well out of the books.
Forster once dismissively placed Welch in the category of writers who “would never do better”; but he relented a little when he wrote to a publisher of Welch’s “sensitiveness, visual and tactile, and his occasional wisdom,” and of his courage not only in bearing his illness but in looking at himself clearly. A special visual and tactile sensitivity is of course the hallmark of Welch’s style, a minute, careful, just slightly fantasticated recording of the detail of things. (Olfactory sensitiveness too: of a plum cake sent in wartime, “when the tin is opened a heavy scent of brandy swells out, like an organ stop. The dark heart of the cake is damp, reminding me of the warm, watered earth in Grandpa’s grape house at Whaphams.”) As a person Welch was dispiritedly aware that he postured, but of his prose style he significantly said he wanted to “knock the posturing out of words.” He does; whether he is describing an evening when he went out dressed in his hostess’s clothes, or the exploration of an English country house. He looks at himself with a cool, if not cold, eye, and views other people in the same way, as objects to be attended to carefully. Faces in particular are solid surfaces, stippled and scored and knobbed, almost grotesques under the dispassionate gaze; yet it is not all surface and coldness, for he is quick and empathic at understanding what people are about.
It is a very English style, and remarkable for the absence of intellectualization and literariness. Ideas do not appear in his work, apart from the occasional self-scrutiny in the journal. He records many meals he ate, but in spite of his bed-bound life rarely discusses anything he is reading. When in Maiden Voyage he looks through an old library, the books exist as objets d’art rather than vehicles of ideas; what he is interested in, again, is surface, that a book was “dark and shiny as wine-jelly, with an over-all pattern of raised acanthus leaves and honeysuckle.” We do hear of his having Mansfield Park read aloud to him, but feel it pleased him chiefly by being a kind of open antique shop of pretty furniture and houses—“It is so nice to read about parsonages, and rolling parks, and pug dogs sitting on sofas with their mistresses, and eligible young men with ten thousand a year, when one is lying in bed, and feeling extremely sordid.” He learned little at school because he hated it and ran away before taking exams, and bewails his illiteracy. The postgraduate student who writes on Welch will have a hard time finding literary influences and seminal ideas and intellectual patterns.
He wants to write, he says, about the things he wishes past writers had put in—“the tiny things of their lives that give them pleasure or fear or wonder. I would like to hear the details of their houses, their meals and their possessions.” And so we know that in 1943, under strict food rationing, lunch at the Sesame Club with Edith Sitwell consisted of tongue, Russian salad, beetroot and potato, followed by stewed rhubarb, and if we were around at that time we will be excitingly reminded that restaurants served something they called mock cream. There is no change of key when we learn gradually what near-death, pain, humiliation, and the whole enclosed world of being ill is like, the vagaries of the night nurse, the death at the end of the ward, the strangeness of visitors from the scarcely conceivable world of the well. “Precious” is the cliché word for Welch, because he loves visual detail and delicate objects, because he presents himself in the books (objectively as always) as someone prim and fastidious. But it is actually a very disciplined style.
It took discipline to settle to writing the books at all: “It was all clear that I should never wander and grope about and gaze, that I should always make for something and do it, that I was lost if I did not make a pattern for myself.” His attitude to his illness is honest; his resentment is not thin enough for a whine and he does not fall back on “the dreadfulness of cheerful optimism.”
As I looked out into the wet dark night, I longed bitterly for my strength and health, nothing more, just the old things I had lost and am almost too ashamed ever to write about. One can lose them for a little; one can wait with beautiful patience; but when it comes to lying day after day, hardly daring to look at anything for fear of restarting the pain in one’s head,
The sentence is unfinished.